Whitgift School can now add Olympic gold to the long list of sporting achievements of its former pupils, after Joe Choong won the men’s modern pentathlon at the Tokyo Games yesterday.
Whitgift has long been a nurturing ground for outstanding sporting talent. On the day that Choong was fencing, swimming, riding, shooting and running to Olympic gold, there was another Old Whitgiftian, Dom Sibley, opening the batting for the England cricket team in the Test against India, while in Cape Town, Elliot Daly was a member of the British and Irish Lions rugby squad playing against South Africa.
Whitgift’s connections with multi-sport are deep-rooted: the school, with its swimming pool and ample grounds for cross-country time trial runs, was staging south of England age group biathlon championships 50 years ago.
And Choong’s gold is no overnight sensation, but the product of decades of investment in creating a Pentathlon GB Academy at the South Croydon independent school, ever since Kate Allenby, a Modern Pentathlon bronze medal-winner at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was brought in as a specialist coach across the five discipline multi-sport.
In Tokyo, Choong, 26, was competing in his second Olympics, having finished a disappointed 10th in Rio five years ago.
From Orpington, he and his younger brother, Henry, who has competed for Britain at the Youth Olympics, both attended Whitgift, where Joe arrived in 2008 as an already outstanding swimmer and runner. His talents, including his being left-handed (southpaws create particular problems for right-handed fencers) were quickly spotted by the school’s pentathlon coach Charlie Unwin.
But Choong feared that his golden moment had passed last year, when the Tokyo Games were postponed because of covid while he was ranked as the world’s No1 pentathlete. For months, he and his flatmate, Sam Curry – an old school friend and another accomplished international pentathlete – were reduced to practising laser shooting in their garden.
“Having the Olympics cancelled was a big blow, I was world No1 at the time and my form was so good,” Choong said.
“It was a pretty dark time, I was unmotivated and didn’t train for a few weeks.”
That he did start training again was rewarded yesterday, as Choong became the first British man to win individual Olympic gold in his sport.
Choong led the field from the fencing ranking round and kept rivals at bay through the swim, bonus fencing round and ride, meaning he started the laser run with a 12-second advantage.
Out of the shooting range and into the final 800 metres, he was caught by Egypt’s Ahmed Elgendy, but Choong had some energy in reserve for the final effort to the finishing line. It was Britain’s second pentathlon gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics, following women’s winner Kate French on Friday.
“I’m in shock,” Choong said.
“I was thinking down the last straight that Elgendy wasn’t going to catch me and I was there swearing in my head.
“There were a couple of heavy jumps on the ride but, compared to a lot of the boys out there, I could be pleased with that.
“The swim was good, fencing was good. The run was quite tactical, I saved myself for the last two laps as people were closing.
“Shooting was a bit sketchy again, I thought I was going to lose it after taking eight shots on the first shoot. But I’ve nailed it.
“I’ve been thinking of this moment ever since I can remember. I was five when watching Sydney, then Kelly Holmes in Athens. I’ve always said I’ve wanted to be the best in the world at something. This is a dream come true.
“It’s unbelievable. Just so many emotions going through my head, disbelief, shock.
“Kate and I always seem to match each other’s results so I was feeling the pressure to keep up with her.”
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